Fleeting Moments

The other evening while walking my dachshund, Roxy, the sunset was stunningly gorgeous. There was a thick group of clouds coming in from the northwest, their tops heavy gray, their bottoms glowing purplish red. Would have made for a great picture for this blog post and social media if I’d had my iPhone with me. But I didn’t.

For a second I was disappointed and irritated that I’d left my iPhone at the house. But then I considered that what really irritates me is feeling that compulsion to digitally memorialize every moment, no matter how fleeting. It irritates me when at concerts folks are staring intently at their smartphone screens trying to record a crappy video that they likely will never watch instead of just enjoying the live performance in front of them. Instead of living in the moment, the moment of reality, the moment of actual experience, we’re trying to save it artificially for later in order to gain some online likes, shares and comments. Ugh.

I get it, the need and desire to record life’s important moments. And I’m not saying we shouldn’t at times attempt to do so. But here’s a thought: let some of life’s fleeting moments be just that. Fleeting. No picture, no video, no recording can ever truly capture what our eyes and ears and the rest of our senses can.

I guess what I’m trying to say is let’s live more in the moment rather than for the moment. Let’s experience life instead of feeling compelled to constantly document it, saving it for a later time we may not get around to experiencing.

‘Til next year.

Consequential Non-Conformity

“For non-conformity the world whips you with its displeasure.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

It’s interesting that when you don’t neatly fit into other’s idea of who you should be, what you should look like, how you should think, they often will become irritated, if not angry at you. Our culture likes to celebrate marching to the beat of a different drum. However, one discovers quickly that if you try to do just that, you are quickly put in your place. And if you refuse to conform, then you are criticized, belittled, ridiculed, condemned, ostracized, and on and on.

And when what was once the anti-establishment becomes the establishment, does it embrace thoughts and ideas contrary to its beliefs? Of course not. It’s interest is in protecting its turf. Ironically, it becomes the very thing it once fought against.

In theory, individuality is celebrated. In practice, conformity is embraced.

In theory, diversity of thought is revered. In practice uniformity of belief is required.

And so it will be until the end of time.

Going Analog

mmwcameraThose who know me would assume from the title of this post that I’m referencing synths. Typically, I would be. But not today.

During a recent purge of unused stuff from the house, I came across a couple of old cameras. You know, the kind that use actual film. One is a 35mm (with 3 unused rolls of 24 exposure film) and the other is a Polaroid 600 (for you youngsters, this is the original Instagram). Finding them stirred up some nostalgic feelings, so much so that I’ve decided that this Thanksgiving holiday, I’ll not only be taking photos using the trusty iPhone and DSLR cameras, but I’ll also be snapping some good ole-fashioned film pics. Granted, I’ll have to find a place that still processes 35mm film and (gasp!) wait an hour or several days for the pictures to be developed.

I’m actually most anxious to use the Polaroid camera. Having pulled it from storage I found that the film cartridge battery was dead rendering the camera unusable. So began the hunt to find where to buy replacement cartridges. Although Polaroid stopped making instant film in 2008, another company, Impossible Film acquired the last factory producing Polaroid instant film and began “The Impossible Project” to continue manufacturing film for the millions of Polaroid cameras still in existence. So now I’ve got my 8 shot cartridge and will be eagerly anticipating the “whirrrrr” of the camera as it ejects the squarish pic from it’s lower compartment.

I’m looking forward to going back to a 20th century method of taking pictures. There’s something about the tactility of the physicial medium that appeals to me. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not giving up digital photography at all. But for more artistic pursuits, I’m thinking old-school just may be the way to go.

Use What You Have

Use what you have. That has become my motto of late, particularly in regards to music equipment. As a gear junkie, it’s easy to get trapped in the mindset that just one more piece of gear will spark some sort of creativity, crush any writer’s block, make me ultimately happy and solve all the world’s problems! Okay, maybe not that last one, but you get the idea. It’s easy to allow the desire for some piece of new gear to get in the way of, or the “latest and greatest” software release to distract from, the fundamental reason I’ve invested in musical hardware and software: making music.

I remember as a young teenager trying to eke every bit of functionality out of my first real synth, a Korg Poly-800. I learned to program my own sounds, to program the step-sequencer and to record it via a poor man’s multitrack (i.e. two separate cassette decks feeding into each other). It was all that I had and could afford at the time. When I had few choices in regards to gear or functionality, I was (if I’m remembering non-nostalgically) more creative. Nowadays, with the wide availability and affordability of powerful soft-synths and the myriad functions they come with, there’s almost too many choices to make when using a software instrument. They come with such an array of features and sounds that it would take a person years to explore it all. Now this is great for those just starting out in this crazy world of music-making as it provides a big bang for the buck, particularly if one is a cash-strapped teenager. But once you’ve spent some time creating music, you begin to realize that too many choices can lead to a stifling of creativity. More isn’t always better.

The DAW (digital audio workstation) that I use for recording, like most software, has periodic updates, typically on an annual basis. And like most software, there is usually a fee for major updates. This year however, I decided to break the cycle and stick with the previous version. Yes, the update that was released has new features I’d like to have and could find useful. But here’s the thing: “last year’s” version is really all that I need. Indeed, it’s much more than I need as there are features buried in it that I’ll likely never use. Can I record and mix audio? Yes. Can I record and edit MIDI data? Yes. Can I do pretty much everything I need to do from a recording studio standpoint with an older, non-current version of DAW software? Yes.

Another driving force for me putting off any new purchases and to use what I have is that, over the past several years, I’ve been moving back into the hardware world. Don’t get me wrong, software plugins sound great and are economical when compared to hardware, but the tactile thing is not there. And as a musician, I miss that. Sitting in front of a computer and mouse-clicking around in the GUI of a soft-synth program feels too much like work. Also, as operating systems are updated, the soft-synths I have today may not run on a future OS due to potential incompatibilities. At least hardware instruments, barring any breakdown in the components, will continue to be playable for decades. That’s not being seen, at least yet, with software instruments.

For me, the solution is a hybrid setup of things I already own: select pieces of quality hardware instruments combined with a few pieces of powerful software. I have not only the immediacy and tactility of hardware instruments but also the convenience and power of software. For me, a focus on just one or the other is unduly limiting. A hybrid setup is, to use a well worn cliche, the best of both worlds.

At the end of the day, it’s not the hardware, it’s not the software, it’s not the latest and greatest gear that makes music. They are just tools that are useless without someone to play them. Take a second look at those tools currently at your disposal: the older instruments, that “out-dated” software, your aging computer. Squeeze every last ounce of creative juice from them to achieve your creative goals. Use what you have.

Knowing Nothing About Something

perception vs. reality
When I was younger, I possessed a certain confidence in the little bit of knowledge I had then acquired. I felt quite certain about that knowledge and second thoughts about it really weren’t necessary because of my certainty. But as I’ve gotten older and gained more experience and the knowledge that comes from it, I’ve increasingly come to the realization that what I thought I knew, and the certainty with which I thought I knew it, have been figments of my imagination. I’ve come to a growing awareness that although I have some knowledge, I really don’t know anything compared to what there is to know. I know nothing about something, if that makes any sense.

I suppose it’s like this for most of us as we get older and acquire experiential knowledge that can be joined to all of the theory we gain in our youth. And experience can be quite the iconoclast to the mental and emotional forms we’ve built around all of the theories we’ve amassed. What we thought we knew about a concept or idea, as time and experience come along and meet up with them, most of the time experience ends up changing our perspective.

Think about it in this way: theory is just conceptual knowledge. Experience is the reality of knowledge. Therefore theory must either match up to experience or be changed by reality.

For example, when I was younger, I was very much a strong proponent of the death penalty. Now, after all of the work of the Innocence Project in overturning unfounded convictions as well as revelations over the years of district attorneys more interested in obtaining convictions than the truth (one notorious example being Mike Nifong of Durham, NC and the Duke Lacrosse case) that iconoclastic reality has made me become much less a proponent of the death penalty and more of someone who believes in extending some mercy and using the death penalty sparingly. I now believe in treading very lightly when meting out the ultimate punishment. I now wonder if innocent individuals have been put to death for a crime they did not commit; I suspect some have.

My confidence in what I thought I knew about a lot of things is not as strong as it once was. I find that I’m not nearly as, let’s be honest, smug about what I’ve known and know. Although initially it can be somewhat disconcerting when my confidence about something is shaken, in the long term, it’s a good and comforting thing. Because when theory and experience are joined together the result is true knowledge. And that’s something in which to be confident.

The Fantastic Fear Of Pretty Much Everything

Simon Pegg in "A Fantastic Fear of Everything"
Fear. Fear. Fear. The great inhibitor. I’m so done with being afraid of the “what-ifs”. But even though I’m tired of the fear, it still likes to rear it’s ugly head and try to impose it’s rule on me. Ugh.

The fear of rejection
The fear of ridicule
The fear of not mattering
The fear of …

Why is it something intangible can have such a hold, such control over our lives? What is it about fear that either paralyzes us to inaction or drives us to irrational behavior?

For example, looking back to my younger days, I now realize how fearful I was of disappointing my parents and other adults in my life. That fear motivated me to make life decisions that, although good decisions, weren’t necessarily the best for me. They made the adults in my life happy, but ultimately left me in the long run, unhappy.

If I can give advice to someone in their late teens/early twenties, it’s this: don’t automatically disregard the guidance given to you by your parents and other adults that you respect. It’s likely to be good advice. But before acting on it, be sure it’s what’s really best for you and not what’s best for them. It’s your life and you have to live with you until you die. Don’t make decisions just to keep them happy or because you’re afraid of upsetting them. I made that mistake and have paid the price. Thankfully, I’m still young enough to be able to rectify most of the less-than-best decisions and live an even more fulfilling and happy life.

Ironically, it’s the fear of waking up one day when I’m old and realizing I’ve only lived a life of regrets and what-ifs that motivated me to make necessary changes. I suppose a little fear can be a good thing…once in awhile. 🙂

What If No One is Paying Attention?

Jorgenson Center at the University of ConnecticutI suspect every writer, be it of words or music, asks him or herself the following questions:

So what’s the point of having a blog if no one is reading the posts?

What’s the point of releasing music if no one is listening to the songs?

Why put forth the energy if no one is going to read or listen to what I write?

Seriously, what’s the point?

The point is this: be it writing words or music, create those things first for yourself. Do what you love and be passionate about it. Now if someone else happens to like what you’ve done enough to want to read or listen, then that’s simply a bonus. And if they don’t like it or are indifferent to it, well then, that’s okay, too.

Don’t create with a motive to simply be liked. Doing that only empowers others, not you. But on the flip side, don’t create with a motive to simply offend. Yes, art will offend when it points out the truth, because truth can be offensive to many people. But offending just for the sake of being offensive? That’s just lazy.

At the end of the day, if your work is important to you and you’ve left a little bit of your heart in it, if you’ve put a bit of your soul into it, then it will stand a better chance of resonating with someone else because they will sense the authenticity in the work. Because without authenticity, then the words you write, the music you perform, are just the result of empty acts of creativity. And seriously, what’s the point of doing that?

On Being “Grown Up”

Uncle Sam "I Want You To Grow Up" posterI’m sure you’ve had someone tell you at some point in your life to “Grow up!” They use that phrase in a derisive, condescending manner to try and shame you in regards to your interests, hobbies, outlook, etc. as though they by default possess superior and mature interests, hobbies, outlooks, etc. However, I don’t believe that’s the reality of the matter. In “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” (1952) C.S. Lewis says:

Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

In a verse likely familiar to even the most casual of Biblical scholars, Matthew 18:3 says, “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven”. I won’t try to delve into the deeper meaning of this verse, but at a minimal surface reading, it’s evident that even the Son of God doesn’t want us to be “grown up” in the proud sense that so many people seem to possess.

In no way am I suggesting that we not mature and become responsible adults applying ourselves to the necessary business of living and all that it entails. However, let us strive to not lose the wonderment, the awe, the uninhibited joy over the simplest of things in life that children so easily and unashamedly display. I know I have been guilty of trying to be all “grown up”. But as I grow older, along with an increasing perspective that I really don’t care what others think, comes a desire to reconnect with my childhood, to reawaken those childlike qualities of wonderment, awe and uninhibited joy over the smallest of life’s treasures.

Music Is Life, Death and Everything In Between

Piano, Life and DeathI recently came across a welcome address given in 2004 by Karl Paulnack to freshman students at The Boston Conservatory. In his address, he explains why music matters in life, in the midst of tremendous pain, suffering and even death. And the account of his most important concert is truly amazing and worth the time to read through the entire speech.

A couple of lines that resonate with me are:

    "Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can't with our minds."


    "Music allows us to move around those big invisible pieces of ourselves and rearrange our insides so that we can express what we feel even when we can't talk about it."

There are plenty of other lines and paragraphs that I could highlight, but I would probably end up just quoting the entire speech. So instead of doing that, I encourage you to read the Full Text of Karl Paulnack’s Welcome Address. It’s worth a few minutes of your time to gain a better understanding of how music is life, death and everything in between.